Women in the patristic age

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The status of women in the patristic age, as defined by the Church Fathers, is a contentious issue within Christianity because some people believe that the patristic writers clearly sought to restrict the influence of women in civil society as well as in the life of the Church. However, others believe that the early fathers actually tried to increase the dignity of women. [1]

The patristic era, which extends roughly from 150 AD to 500 AD, is claimed to be harsher than the Middle Ages themselves in attributing social roles to women, hence the expression patriarchy used by modern-day feminists.

Anthropological perspectives[edit]

Aristotle's views on women[edit]

Aristotle believed that women are colder than men and thus a lower form of life.[2] His assumption carried forward unexamined to Galen and others until the 16th century.[3]

Male activity and female passivity[edit]

Some people view that the Church Fathers' views were like that of the classical Greeks and Romans. In the classical age, which shaped patristic views, male sexuality and power were closely associated, and female sexuality was associated with passivity. Church Fathers opposed to practice of independent female ascetism because it threatened to emancipate women from men. To take one's pleasure was to be virile, to accept it servile.[4] However, others view that the Fathers actually believed in the dignity of women. "The teaching of the most enlightened of the fathers was. undoubtedly to. the effect that there was no natural inferiority in the woman to the man. Theodoret (Grcee. Affect. Curat. book 5) insists emphatically on their exact equality, and says that God made woman from man in order that the tendencies and action of both might be harmonious. Sometimes, indeed, he observes, woman has been found superior to man in encountering adversity (Migne, 83:836). Chrysostom (Hoern. 61:3) says that no one is more fit to instruct and exhort her husband than a pious woman. This conception differed, however, materially from that of Plato (Repub. 5:455), in that while the Greek philosopher sought to obliterate the ordinary distinctions between the sexes, the Christian father held that nature assigned to woman her special and distinct province of activity. Chrysostom, in a passage of singular beauty, gives us a comparison between the duties of the wife and those of the husband, the former being represented as in some respects the more dignified; for while the husband is described as engaged in the rougher work of life, in the market or the law-courts, the wife is represented as remaining at home and devoting much of her time to prayer, to reading the Scriptures, — καὶ τῇ ἄλλῃ φιλοσοφίᾷ. When her husband returns, harassed with his labors, it is her function to cheer and to soothe him, so that he again goes forth into the world purified from the evil influences to which he has there been exposed, and carrying with him the higher influences of his home-life (In Joann. Hom. 61; Migne, 59:340)."[4]

Ecclesiastical roles[edit]

Throughout the Patristic age, women held a variety of positions in Church office and performed ecclesiastical duties. Despite recurrent opposition of women in office by various Councils and Church fathers like Tertullian, women were influential in shaping the hierarchy of Christianity.[5] By the end of the 6th century, the Church officially recognized three orders of women: deaconesses, widows and virgins.[6] The surviving evidence also suggests the existence of female presbyters and even bishops, the extent of which is unclear because of the scarcity of remaining records.[7]


In the Eastern Church, women were being ordained as deaconesses from the 3rd century to at least the 7th century, from Armenia to Gaul.[5] By the 3rd century, the office of deaconesses was well attested by the Didascalia Apostolorum.[8] The office was further classified in the Council of Nicaea as well as the Apostolic Constitutions of the 4th century in which the ordination ceremony for the deaconess is outlined, confirming its place as an order supported by the Church.[9] Evidence for female deacons in the West emerges in the 5th century but few inscriptions survive as a result of several synods’ efforts to eliminate them.[5] The female diaconate in the West certainly existed, though was not widely accepted. Moreover, it was subject to local interpretations and was often confused with the order of widows.[10] Although the role of the deaconess was liturgical in nature, it remained limited to duties considered improper for a male to perform, such as instructing women, assisting women in disrobing and anointing their body in the holy rite of baptism.[11]

Widows and Virgins[edit]

By the early 3rd century, the qualification for the office of widows was well established and its duties were clearly outlined in various Church Orders. Some inscriptions, such as The Apostolic Tradition reveal that widows were to be ecclesiastically enrolled, but not ordained. Others, like the Testamentum Domini explicitly state that widows were to have an ordained office, with duties surpassing the usual service of prayer.[9] Regardless of the status they were granted, the Church irrefutably held widows in high esteem. In contrast, virgins were not considered church offices, nor were they appointed by ordination.[7] In some areas however, they were considered members of the clergy and part of the ecclesiastical order, like those of Tertullian’s Carthage and other African congregations.[10]


Repeated attempts were made by councils to eliminate the order of female presbyters. Their existence, albeit small in quantity, is indicated through epigraphical and literary evidence.[7] Documented incidences of female presbyters are limited, with records suggesting they were most common in the Montanist movement in the East and the Priscillianist movement in the West. Although both movements were later deemed heretical, evidence also exists to support the presence of female presbyters within the “orthodox” Church. A letter from Pope Gelasius from the end of the 5th century acknowledges their sacerdotal duties in Southern Italy and Sicily, whose communities and bishops evidently accepted these positions. Some argue that perhaps their governing role in communities as presbyters assigned women the authority to teach and exercise sacramental and liturgical functions.[7] Nevertheless, the precise responsibilities of female presbyters remains largely unclear.[5]


The early Church largely succeeded in excluding women from this office. Despite this, some Christian groups like the Montanists did appoint women as bishops. Latin inscriptions from Italy and Dalmatia certainly suggest their presence there as bishops in the 5th and 6th centuries.[7] As a result of sparse epigraphical evidence, it is arguable whether women exercised the role of bishop in other areas and Christian groups.

Image of women as seen by theologians[edit]

Woman as the root of all evil[edit]

Tertullian's views on women went further: "The curse God pronounced on your sex still weighs on the world. …You are the devil's gateway…. You are the first that deserted the divine laws. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because you deserved death, it was the son of God who had to die".[12]

St Jerome, the well known Biblical scholar and translator of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) had a simple view of women. To him "woman is the root of all evil."[13] Like most early Christian theologians, Jerome glorified virginity and looked down on marriage. His reasoning was also rooted in Genesis: "Eve in paradise was a virgin ... understand that virginity is natural and that marriage comes after the Fall."[14]

Firmilian tells of a woman who went into an ecstasy and came out a prophetess. "That woman who first through marvels or deceptions of the demons did many things to deceive the faithful, among other things... she dared to do this, namely that by an impressive invocation she feigned she was sanctifying bread, and offering a sacrifice to the Lord."[15]

Women as the weaker sex[edit]

John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople at the beginning of the 5th century, said of biblical women that they "were great characters, great women and admirable…. Yet did they in no case outstrip the men, but occupied the second rank" (Epistle to the Ephesians, Homily 13). Commenting on 1 Timothy 2:11-15,

Chrysostom said that "the male sex enjoyed the higher honor. Man was first formed; and elsewhere he shows their superiority…. He wishes the man to have the preeminence in every way." Of women he said that "The woman taught once, and ruined all. On this account therefore he saith, let her not teach. But what is it to other women, that she suffered this? It certainly concerns them; for the sex is weak and fickle, and he is speaking of the sex collectively." (1 Timothy, Homily 9).

Augustine elevated the contempt of women and sex to a level unsurpassed before. To him, women's inferiority to men was so obvious[16] that he felt that he had to ask the question: "Why was woman created at all".[17] He concluded that woman was created purely for procreation and for nothing else.[18] The expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, according to him, was purely the fault of Eve.[19]

Women as creatures of lust[edit]

Gregory of Nazianzus, the Bishop of Constantinople had this to say about women, "Fierce is the dragon and cunning the asp; But women have the malice of both."

According to the theologian Origen, women are worse than animals because they are continuously full of lust.[20] Origen does not approve of the sexual act even in marriage and taught that although widowers can remarry, they are by no means crowned for this.[17] He also argued in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that female prophets never spoke publicly in the assembly.[21]

St. Clement of Alexandria had such a contempt for women that he believed such a feeling must be universal. He wrote, in his book Paedagogus that in women, "the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame". He also suggested that women should also fetch from the pantry things that we need.[22]

Gregory of Nyssa taught that the sexual act was an outcome of the fall and that marriage is the outcome of sin.[17]

Specific prohibitions against female demands[edit]

Council of Elvira[edit]

The c. 4th century council of Elvira made some canons (church law) restricting women concerning divorce, adultery and abortion:

  • Canon 8: Women who have left their husbands for no prior cause and have joined themselves with others, may not even at death receive communion.
  • Canon 9: A woman of the faith who has left an adulterous husband of the faith and marries another, her marrying in this manner is prohibited. If she has so married, she may not at any more receive communion—unless he that she has left has since departed from this world.
  • Canon 63: If a woman conceives in adultery and then has an abortion, she may not commune again, even as death approaches, because she has sinned twice.


In his First Apology Justin Martyr cautioned that it was wicked to dispose of children through exposure to the elements, given that almost all those who are exposed were raised to prostitution.[23][24]


Justin also added a warning against consorting with prostitutes because it was possible that one "may possibly be having intercourse with his own child, or relative, or brother" unknowingly, due to the practice of infant exposure.[23][24]

Women in heretical movements[edit]

A number of minority movements, deemed heretical by the wider church, gave a more prominent place to the ministry of women and in some cases allowed them to participate in the priestly ministry. These include Montanism in the 2nd and 3rd century, the Quintillians and Collyridians in the 4th century, and Priscillianism in the 4th century. These heretical sects provided occasion for the institutional church to condemn the ecclesiastical ministry of women.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature 1895 ed. John McClintock and James Strong. "Women".
  2. ^ Lovejoy, Arthur (1964). The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-36153-9.
  3. ^ Tuana, Nancy (1993). The Less Noble Sex: Scientific, Religious and Philosophical Conceptions of Women's Nature. Indiana University Press. pp. 21, 169. ISBN 978-0-253-36098-4.
  4. ^ Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature 1895 ed. John McClintock and James Strong. "Women".
  5. ^ a b c d Madigan, Kevin; Osiek, Carolyn, eds. (2005). Ordained Women in the Early Church. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0801879326.
  6. ^ Lang, Judith (1989). Ministers of Grace. Middlegreen, England: St. Paul Publications. ISBN 978-0854392988.
  7. ^ a b c d e Eisen, Ute E. (2000). Women Officeholders in Early Christianity. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press. ISBN 978-0-8146-5950-2.
  8. ^ Dunlop Gibson, Margaret (2011). The Didascalia Apostolorum in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781108018975.
  9. ^ a b LaPorte, Jean (1982). The Role of Women in Early Christianity. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 978-0889465497.
  10. ^ a b Torjesen, Karen Jo (1995). When Women Were Priests. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-0060686611.
  11. ^ Witherington, Ben (1988). Women in the Earliest Churches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521346481.
  12. ^ Tertullian, "On Women's Clothing", 1:1
  13. ^ Vivian, Philip. 1911. The Churches and Modern Thought: p284
  14. ^ Knight, Honest to Man: p120
  15. ^ In Epistle 75. 1-5 to Cyprian,
  16. ^ Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p55
  17. ^ a b c Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought: p203
  18. ^ Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p77
  19. ^ Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p185
  20. ^ Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p51-52
  21. ^ a b William Weinrich. "Women in the History of the Church". In John Piper; Wayne Grudem (eds.). Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Crossway 1991.
  22. ^ Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p127,130
  23. ^ a b A Brief History of Infanticide
  24. ^ a b Martyr, Justin. "First Apology" - Chapter XXVII Guilt of exposing children